3rd April 2019

First Timers Guide to New York City

New York for me, like many others, was my ultimate travel destination. Having grown up on a mixture of Friends, CSI New York and Law and Order, New York holds such a sentimental and iconic place in my heart.

Back in December me and my mum went on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to celebrate her 60th birthday. We visited when New York is at its finest, Christmas time! We saw the Radio City Rockettes, visited the tree at Rockafella, went decorations shopping at Macy’s and eyed up the window displays at Saks. It was a magical time to visit the city and while it was heaving I think there is no better place to celebrate the holiday season than New York.

Even though we went at Christmas time, this guide is going to be a first timer’s guide to New York for whatever season you are visiting. In this guide, I’ll talk about how to get there and the best places to stay, what to do and useful tips and practical information. There isn’t anything particularly new, funky or groundbreaking about this short guide – it’s mainly for people who have never been to the city before and want to know the ins and outs!

This guide is designed for people who already have a trip to New York booked. If you are in the process of just planning a trip to New York, read this guide first

Getting There and Where To Stay

Getting to New York is easy, with direct flights leaving London airports multiple times daily. New York has two international airports, John F Kennedy (JFK) and also Newark (EWR), with both airports roughly the same distance away from Manhattan (although Newark is quicker to get back to for the return journey home – traffic towards JFK can get very busy in the afternoon!). Flights on the way out are between 7-8 hours but on the way back they can be only 6 (tail-winds!).

New York City is actually divided into five boroughs; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. Manhattan is considered the main ‘island’ of New York as it has all of the iconic tourist attractions and landmarks. For first timers, its best to stay in Manhattan, as while other boroughs may be cheaper accommodation, it is better to be within the main place of where you are visiting! If staying out of Manhattan you would have to factor in journey time and costs to get to Manhattan island.

Manhattan itself can be split into three areas; upper, mid-town and lower Manhattan. Most first timers stay in mid-town as this is where Times Square is located. Mid-town is pretty central to everything, but hotels around here come at a premium and it is extremely busy. For your first time staying in New York, you don’t have to stay in mid-town –  upper Manhattan and lower Manhattan have iconic landmarks and points of interest too (upper Manhatten is closer to central park whereas lower Manhatten is where you have trendy neighbourhoods such as Soho, Chinatown and Chelsea. You also have the Financial District in lower Manhatten as well as the iconic Brooklyn Bridge).

The metro system makes it easy to get around and there are tube stops on nearly every corner. A weeks ticket is only $33 for unlimited journeys.

Hotels are expensive in New York, so find something that is clean and comfortable – you’ll only be using it as a base!

I’ve spoken more in detail about planning a trip to New York in this post here.

What To Do

I had a client at work come in the other day and ask if there was enough to do in New York (I’m a travel agent if you are confused!). I looked at her in shock – what isn’t there to do in New York?

For first-timers, you’ll probably only be visiting for 4-5 days so you need to use your time wisely in order to fit everything in. I advise clients who are going to New York to create a list of everything they absolutely must see and then divide it into areas to save them from hopping about all over the place. Therefore, below here are some ideas on what you can do in each area of Manhattan…

Upper Manhatten 

Upper Manhatten where you will find the iconic Central Park, 840 acres of urban park that offers a sense of calm in the city that never sleeps. Central Park is absolutely huge, with lakes, bridges, statues, performance artists even a zoo! You could spend all day wandering around and still discover something new.

On the Upper East Side on 5th Avenue, you will find the Museum Mile where you will find museums such as The Met, The Guggenheim Museum and Museum of The City of New York. On the other side of Central Park, on the Upper West Side, you will find the American Museum of Natural History.

If you want another unique viewpoint over the city, The Roosevelt Island Tram, located on East 59th St and 2nd Avenue is worth doing. You can use your weekly metro card or pay $3 per journey. The tram is an aerial tramway which connects the Upper East Side to Roosevelt Island – you can ride it there and back to get a unique view of the city.

Mid Town

Mid-town is where you will find the biggest concentration of landmarks and things of interest, the most obvious being Times Square. Times Square is what most people may think of when they think of New York, a bustling hub of flashing lights, billboards, tourist shops and street performers. It is very touristy and oh so busy. But don’t let that put you off, its iconic for a reason and once you’ve seen Times Square at night, you’ll be in awe of the magic from the neon lights, yellow taxis and crowds of people.

Another must when in New York is to go see a show on Broadway. Broadway is actually a long street that stretches down the centre of Manhatten, but you’ll find the biggest concentration of theatres around mid-town. We went and saw Anastasia while we were in New York, as it was my favourite childhood film, and it was absolutely incredible. I’d certainly recommend saving up and seeing a show if you can. If you aren’t fussed about what show you see, in Times Square there is a ticket booth called RUSH where you can get same-day tickets at discounted prices – a good option if you are on a budget!

When visiting New York for the first time, you want to get that iconic picture of New Yorks infamous skyline. But where do you get it, Top Of The Rock or Empire State? When we visited, we opted for TOTR, simply because we wanted to get the Empire State in our pictures. We went first thing in the morning and it was very quiet, almost peaceful, and we got some incredible views of the city below us.

A few blocks from Times Square is Byrant Park a small public park which has fantastic views of Empire State. When we visited at Christmas time, Byrant Park had its own winter village, complete with tree and icing skating rink plus lots of places to eat and drink. If you are looking for an oasis in the middle of it all, Byrant Park offers just that.

Of course one of the biggest attractions that draw people to New York is the endless shopping opportunities. 5th Avenue is the most famous shopping street in the world, running down the centre of Manhatten, but if you want to hunt for bargains Woodbury Common and Jersey Gardens are outlet malls outside of the city that offer great discounts on premium brands.

Lower Manhatten 

Lower Manhattan is where you will find The Financial District, home to Wall Street and the Charging Bull statue. Here, you also have Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial Museum. The Memorial Museum, in my opinion, is a must if visiting New York. It’s a harrowing insight into the events that happened on the day the twin towers were attacked as well as a beautiful remembrance of every single one of the people that lost their lives.

Located opposite the Memorial Museum is the One World Observatory located in the One World Trade Center. It’s the tallest building in New York and offers an incredible view over the Manhatten skyline. I think I actually prefer this view than the TOTR!

Lower Manhatten is where you can catch the Staten Island Ferry which offers a free way to see The Statue of Liberty. The ferry runs pretty regularly over to Staten Island. Top tip – go at sunset to see the skyline at dusk!

Located to the east of lower Manhatten is Brooklyn Bridge, the most famous bridge in New York. It’s pedestrianised so you can walk, or cycle over. Rather than walk over the bridge and then back again, we caught the subway to York Street Station in Brooklyn, had a wander around DUMBO and then walked back to Manhatten. This was to save our poor feet! It’d be best to get to Brooklyn Bridge as early as possible – it gets *very* busy!

Places I didn’t get to visit

On my first visit to New York, I didn’t get to see absolutely everything I wanted, but it’s okay – I already have my second trip planned for the beginning of next year!

Places that I didn’t get the chance to see included Chelsea Market (an indoor food market), The High Line (a railway line that has been converted into a pretty garden walkway), China Town, East Village and Greenwich Village. I mainly want to visit these places to eat all the food and pretend I live in a big townhouse like Carrie from Sex and the City.

Useful Tips & Practical Information

The most important and practical piece of advice for visiting New York is checking the entry requirements. You will need an ESTA in order to visit the United States, a visa which you can apply for online that costs $14. They last for two years and will be granted pretty instantly provided you haven’t had any criminal convictions. If you aren’t granted an ESTA you will have to visit the US Embassy in London to be given a full visa. You can apply for your ESTA here.

Whenever I go abroad I take a pre-paid currency card (I use the Post Office’s travel money card, but there are loads on the market). This is so I am not carrying loads of cash around with me and nearly all places accept Mastercard anyway. The only cash I needed was for tipping and taxi’s – me and mum took asked for $1 at the currency exchange for this reason.

Tipping is big in America, so remember to factor this in when you get the bill. You’ll have to tip everyone from your taxi driver, concierge staff and restaurant staff. In most places we ate, they often gave a rough percentage of how much you should tip on the receipt (it’s usually between 15-20%).

Invest in a good pair of walking shoes, your feet will thank you for it! You’ll be clocking at least 20,000 steps a day in The Big Apple, so comfortable footwear is a must.

Before you get there, download a New York City subway map to your phone that can be used when offline. When you arrive, purchase a week’s metro card that is $33 that offers unlimited rides around the city (each ride is $3 so it’s worth getting a weeks card if you are planning on using the subway a lot). The metro is quite straight forward to use, although it is not like the London tube – the platforms don’t tell you when the next train is or where it’s going, you just have to wait until your train turns up.

A lot of places around New York offer free wifi – Starbucks is good for this and also LinkNYC offer wifi hotspots all over the city.

I hope you have found this first timer’s guide to New York useful and it has got you excited for your New York trip! If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. Have you visited New York? What’s your biggest tip when visiting the city?